Prologue ''The Stationmaster'' opens with the narrator, A.G.N., frustrated with the stationmaster as he travels on his journey. In early nineteenth-century Russia travelers used horses provided by post-stations to go from one town to another, along post-roads. The stationmaster was responsible for the administration of road permits (required of all travelers) and the horses travelers would use.
The narrator becomes more sympathetic, insisting that the stationmaster is "a veritable martyr of the fourteenth class.’’ This alludes to the institution known as the Table of Ranks, which, in Czarist Russia, established an order of social ranking among all government workers, including the military. The fourteenth class was the lowest of the ranks in the Table. The narrator appeals to his ‘‘reader's conscience" by offering examples of situations in which a stationmaster is a victim of circumstances, subject to verbal and physical abuse.
Part II The narrator discusses a stationmaster he had come to know along his travels. On a hot day he is caught in a spring shower, arriving at a station ‘‘along a route that has since been abandoned.’’ Hoping for dry clothes and some tea, the narrator is greeted by the stationmaster and his beautiful fourteen-year-old daughter, Dunia. The stationmaster is described as "a man about fifty years of age, still fresh and agile.’’
As the stationmaster copies out the traveler's order for fresh horses, the narrator passes the time observing a series of pictures depicting the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. The narrator enjoys a drink and conversation with the stationmaster and Dunia as if they were old friends. As he reluctantly leaves the station, he asks Dunia for a kiss, and she consents.
Part III Years pass before the narrator has a chance to return to the station; he speculates what has happened to the stationmaster and Dunia during those intervening years. When he arrives again at the station, he recognizes the pictures depicting the parable of the Prodigal Son, but both the station and stationmaster are in a state of neglect.
When the narrator asks about Dunia, the stationmaster tells him how one winter evening ‘‘a slim young hussar'' (a cavalry officer) arrived at his station in an angry mood. When greeted by Dunia, the young officer's anger quickly dissipated. When the horses were readied for the traveler, he suddenly fell ill, insisting he would not be able to travel on. The stationmaster offered the officer his bed and Dunia attended him until a doctor could arrive the following day.
The doctor arrived and the officer spoke to him in German (which the stationmaster could not understand). The doctor then told the stationmaster that the young officer would need more rest. Then both the officer and the doctor enjoyed dinner and a bottle of wine. After another day passed, the hussar was fully recovered, and offered Dunia a ride in his carriage to church. When Dunia hesitated, her father encouraged her to accept his offer, ‘‘His Honor's not a wolf; he won't eat you: go ahead, ride with him as far as the church.''
Later the poor stationmaster could not understand how he could have permitted Dunia to go off with the hussar; what had blinded him? what had deprived him of reason? Half an hour had scarcely passed when his heart began to ache and ache, and anxiety overwhelmed him to such a degree that he could no longer resist setting out for the church himself. He could see as he approached the church that the congregation was already dispersing, but Dunia was neither in the churchyard nor on the porch. He hurried into...
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the church: the priest was leaving the altar, the sexton extinguishing the candles, and two old women still praying in a corner; but Dunia was not there. Her poor father could hardly bring himself to ask the sexton if she had been to mass. She had not, the sexton replied. The stationmaster went home more dead than alive. (Excerpt from ‘‘The Stationmaster,’’ translated by Paul Debreczeny.)
Falling ill at the loss of his daughter, the stationmaster was treated by the same physician who had seen the hussar, who told him that the officer had not truly been sick. Using the travel documents to determine the identity and destination of the hussar, the stationmaster set off for Petersburg, telling himself,"I shall bring my lost sheep home.'' When at last he tracks down Captain Minskii, the officer apologizes to the stationmaster but refuses to return Dunia to her father, sending him out to the street.
After a few days the stationmaster returned to Minskii's lodgings but was refused entry. After attending a service at the Church of All the Afflicted, he recognizes the young officer traveling by in a carriage. Following the carriage, the stationmaster arrives at a three-story building and discovers that Dunia lives on the second floor.
Forcing his way into the apartment, the station-master sees his daughter seated beside Captain Minskii. When she recognizes her father, Dunia faints and falls to the floor. Angered, the hussar throws the stationmaster out of the apartment. The stationmaster concludes his story, telling the narrator that he has received no news of his daughter 's fate.
Part IV Years pass, but the narrator cannot forget the stationmaster or Dunia. Traveling nearby on an autumn day, he discovers that the station has been abolished and that the stationmaster has passed away. As he is led to the stationmaster's grave by a little boy, he is told that a wealthy young lady (whom the narrator seems to presume is Dunia), traveling with three children, had come to visit the stationmaster in the summer. When she was shown his grave, she "threw herself on the grave and lay there for a long time.’’ Having learned this, the narrator leaves the town satisfied.